You know how to
research the law. You know how to argue the facts. But
how do you deal with this person who calls himself your client?
This article illustrates a coaching session in which a mid-level law
firm associate learns to prepare a client
for a deposition.
Following is a case study based on an actual
coaching session in which an inexperienced law firm Associate learns
to prepare a client for an upcoming deposition. This
coaching session is one in a series of coaching programs offered by Hird Associates that are aimed at helping mid-level Associates make
the necessary leap from technical experts to trusted client
advisors. This particular case study demonstrates how
suggesting the right physical adjustment to the Associate caused a
dramatic improvement in the Associate's presence and control during
his meeting with the client.
The coaching session is divided into three parts: (1) role-play of
witness preparation; (2) feedback; (3) re-do of role-play. Involved in the session are: (1)Karl (a
fictitious name), a 2nd year Litigation Associate at a
top-10 national law firm; and (2) Diana Hird, the coach, who acts
alternately as the witness in the role-play and as the coach outside
the role-play, and will be referred to alternately as Witness and
Coach depending on her function at that time.
Before beginning the role-play, Coach
observes Karl speaking to a colleague and notices Karl’s fast-paced
speech pattern and frequent furtive glances to his Blackberry.
Immediately, Coach predicts that Karl’s speedy internal pace will be his
greatest obstacle to communicating with the Witness.
Personalized Coaching Approach:
The Coach considers two approaches to her
role-play with Karl: (1) play a Witness that functions at a faster
pace than Karl; or (2) play a Witness that functions at a pace that
is significantly slower than Karl’s. Either choice will create an
obstacle to interpersonal communication and consequently, a learning
experience for Karl.
Coach chooses to play a character that is
faster-paced than Karl. The role-play begins as follows:
Witness: (typing into Blackberry)
I have 20 minutes for this prep so don’t worry about the niceties.
Karl: Actually we have a lot to cover, I don’t know
Witness: Son, I have a company to run; I have a lot of
experience and I don’t need to be babied. Just give me the gist and
I’ll see you there next week.
Karl: Ok. (speaking quickly) The set-up will
be that I’ll sit next to you; opposing counsel will sit across from
Witness: Come on kid, don’t waste my time. (tapping
the watch on his raised wrist for effect) Give me the exec
Karl: (speaking at the speed of light) Their
theory of the case will be that you had gotten the information from
George before you sold your shares and our theory is that you sold
the shares at that time because you were ……(continues to speak
for four minutes without taking a breath or interacting with the
Observations During Role-Play:
During the above role-play, Coach observes
the following physical manifestations in Karl:
- Both fists are tightly clenched
- He is leaning far forward in his chair
- He is facing Witness straight-on
- His eyes are locked on the Witness’ eyes
- He is breathless
Coach steps back from the role-play and
initiates the debrief session with Karl.
Coach: What percentage of
words spoken during the role-play were yours?
Karl: I spoke most of the time. 80%.
Coach: Who controlled the meeting?
Karl: I tried to.
Coach: How did you try to control the meeting?
Karl: By talking as fast as I could so I could get
through my agenda.
Coach: Did it work?
Karl: Well, I got the
witness to stop complaining about the
Coach: True. What was the purpose of meeting with
Karl: To prepare the
Coach: Was the witness listening to what you said?
Karl: I don’t think so.
Coach: How do you know?
Karl: The witness' eyes looked spaced out.
Coach: Yes. And you talked so fast I,
as the witness, had no idea what
you said. Now, if I wasn’t understanding you, did you accomplish your
Karl: No. So I guess I didn’t control the meeting.
Techniques for Changing Associate’s Impact
At this point, Coach prepares Karl for a
re-do of the role-play. In formulating the right coaching
intervention, Coach's goal is to find the smallest intervention that
will yield the most improvement. While Coach is looking for
Karl to make substantial changes in his approach (slowdown speech,
listen better, regain composure . . . ), Coach will not get Karl to
make these changes by simply telling him to do so. Direct
instructions would have the unwanted effect of making Karl
self-conscious (am I talking slowly enough now?) and of confusing
him (am I listening now?). In such a state, anxieties about
"getting it right" will defeat the intended goal.
Coach therefore formulates an intervention that
is intended to achieve the desired results without making Karl aware
of what results he is being asked to achieve. Suggesting a physical
adjustment is one way of doing this. Coach tells Karl:
Turn at a slight angle away from Witness
Lean back in your chair
The second role-play follows with Karl taking
on the posture suggested by Coach:
Witness: I have twenty minutes
Karl: (pause) We
have a problem. (pause)
Witness: (pause) What?
Karl: (out of natural
impulse, folding his arms) This can’t be done in twenty
Witness: (annoyed but
listening) Well what do you need.
Karl: (long pause then inspiration) It’s
not what I need. It’s what you need. It’s the money you stand to
lose if...(stops himself as he notices Witness’s physiological
Witness: (looks down at table
and rubs temple… long pause, then speaking softly to herself)
Sh*t, I don’t have the time for this. (sigh) What a mess. (shakes
head then looks up and says reluctantly) Go on.
In this role-play, Karl is more
self-possessed. As a result, he has successfully taken control from
the Witness. There is a physiological explanation for Karl’s
change. Turning sideways and leaning back allows Karl to separate
from the Witness and her concerns and simultaneously to connect to
his own thoughts and perceptions. The physical change creates a parallel mental change. Karl’s speech also becomes much
slower and contains pauses. This change happened automatically from
the simple physical adjustment. And by not telling Karl explicitly
to slow down, the Coach avoided making Karl self-conscious of his
speech. This approach is used frequently by theater and film
directors to coax actors to develop their characters in a particular
way. In fact, what Coach has done in this session is to help
Karl create a particular character that will best serve him in this
type of situation.
Coach: Was there a particular point where you
gained control in the second role-play?
Karl: Yes. When you said
“well, what do you need?”
Coach: How was that a change
Karl: Just that suddenly you were asking about
what I needed rather than telling me what you needed. Though it
annoyed me because it’s not for me. We’re doing this for you. It’s
Coach: And you told me that.
Karl: Yeah. And you
didn’t get me fired.
Coach: No. In fact, what
was the effect?
Karl: Your demeanor
Karl: You got all weird
Coach: And how did you
Karl: I didn’t know what
to do so I just stopped talking.
Coach: And what was the
effect of that?
Karl: You just sort of
turned yourself around somehow.
Coach: Yes. In the direction
you wanted me to go. And you did this without too much effort.
In the case study, Karl was asked to adjust his
physicality in a way that would move his focus in a more inward
direction. This adjustment was effective for him because he
was initially too caught up in the Witness’ antics. What
is important to note is that this adjustment will not necessarily
help another Associate. Another Associate might have the
opposite tendency and have too much internal focus.
Ironically, for such an Associate, the coaching intervention might
be to ask him to sit as Karl had been sitting during Karl's initial role-play.
Yet another Associate might be better served by an adjustment other
than a physical adjustment. For example, in another coaching
session, one Associate disclosed in passing that her mother was a
college professor. In her role-play, this Associate tended to
lecture the client. For her re-do, she was asked to avoid
making statements and focus on asking questions. This shift
was all it took for this Associate to move from an off-putting
didactic style to a collaborative style of communication. This
shift was accomplished without her having to be told that she was
The approach used by Hird Associates differs
from traditional litigation skills training programs. The
traditional programs focus on giving Associates a litany of "correct
answers" for each situation in the form of "when the client says X,
you should respond Y". This traditional approach seems
reasonable in theory but in practice it does not work.
Associates taught in this traditional method tend to say the "right
words" but, in saying them, are not believable or convincing.
The Associates seem inexplicably salesmen-like which in turn affects
their credibility in their clients' eyes. On the other hand,
individualized coaching like in the above example forces Associates
to seek out their own way of getting a point across to clients.
When an Associate does this, the client will immediately sense it.
What the client senses in that moment is what people refer to as
"Presence", that indefinable quality that engenders trust.
Developing Presence is what it takes for an Associate to jump from
being a technical expert to being a trusted client advisor.